Outside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse, in lower Manhattan, police stood watchfully behind a yellow “Do Not Cross” tape. An agitated crowd had gathered: people chanting, jostling, shouting into megaphones. Some waved blue-and-white Honduran flags. Others held up signs in English and Spanish: “No Clemency for Narcopolitics.”
It was March 30, 2021: sentencing day for Juan Antonio (Tony) Hernández, a former Honduran congressman who had been arrested in Miami in 2018, on suspicion of drug trafficking. After a trial in the Southern District of New York, Hernández had been found guilty of taking part in the smuggling of at least a hundred and eighty-five thousand kilos of cocaine into the U.S.—enough to supply five doses to everyone living in America.
On the street, protesters waved a huge hand-painted banner that read “Extradition for the Narcopresident”—a reference to the most explosive aspect of the trial. According to witnesses’ testimony, Hernández had been aided in his criminal enterprise by his brother Juan Orlando Hernández, the President of Honduras. Prosecutors charged that the Hernández brothers had been on the take for a decade or more, and that Tony had used his proximity to power to help move Colombian cocaine through Honduras and toward the United States, sometimes in collaboration with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
Inside the building, Hondurans packed an overflow room, intently watching a monitor that showed the interior of the court. As they waited for Hernández to be brought in, a middle-aged woman complained about conditions back home: “The price of beans has risen so much, only the rich can eat them.” Another woman announced that her grandfather had been murdered—a victim of the drug-related violence that has overwhelmed the country. Peering at the monitor for signs of Hernández, she said angrily, “I just want to see his face before I die.”
A moment later, Hernández was led to his seat. A clean-shaven man of forty-three, he is known at home as a blustering extrovert. Now, surrounded by guards, he was subdued. A man observed, “Look how these people, who had so much power in Honduras, end up here like rats.”
The prosecutors’ case described a career of corruption that had helped transform Honduras into a virtual narco-state. Hernández, they said, had sold weapons to drug traffickers and tipped off dealers about U.S. efforts to train Honduran pilots for night raids. He had used millions of dollars from drug sales to finance his party’s elections; on behalf of his brother the President, he had accepted a million-dollar bribe from Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. The lead prosecutor called Hernández a “uniquely bad character, who, along with his brother, is at the center of years of state-sponsored drug trafficking.” His criminal behavior, the prosecutor said, had left Honduras “one of the principal transshipment points for cocaine in the world” and “one of the most violent places in the world.” President Hernández has strenuously denied any involvement, and defense lawyers dismissed the key witnesses—several confessed drug traffickers—as serial killers who were looking for “get-out-of-jail-early cards.” Prosecutors pointed out that the evidence included a ledger of drug proceeds containing the President’s initials: J.O.H., as he is universally known in Honduras. They also noted that Tony sometimes carried an Uzi inscribed with the name Juan Orlando Hernández and the title Presidente de la República.
When Tony Hernández was given time to speak, he raised procedural objections: crucial evidence had not been reviewed, and his lawyers did not meet his standards. He said he felt that the U.S. had “betrayed” him, by failing to uphold his constitutional rights.
The judge, P. Kevin Castel, a slender, white-haired man, spoke with restrained outrage. He said that he had tried many defendants for drug crimes, from small retailers to drivers of go-fast boats. “Many are unskilled and impoverished, and are endeavoring to support their families,” he said. Hernández was different. “He makes an excellent appearance,” Castel went on, “well dressed and wearing a warm and engaging smile. He is well educated.” But, rather than use his advantages for productive work, “he became a major facilitator of the movement of cocaine,” going so far as to have his initials emblazoned on shipments of his own brand.
Castel listed some of the men who Hernández was believed to have put to death. Among them was his former business partner Nery López Sanabria, who reportedly had planned to coöperate with the D.E.A. In October, 2019, eight days after Hernández was convicted, López Sanabria was shot and stabbed to death, by assassins who had been allowed to breach an area of the maximum-security Honduran prison where he was being held. Six weeks later, his lawyer was killed. Three days after that, the warden of the prison was killed, too.
Hernández sat with hands clasped as his crimes were enumerated. Castel sentenced him to life plus thirty years in prison, and ordered him to forfeit a hundred and thirty-nine million dollars. He concluded, “We can hope that, looking back in years to come, today will have been an important step in eliminating the corrupting influence of narco-trafficking.”
In the U.S., Tony Hernández’s trial garnered less publicity than El Chapo’s had, in 2019, but in some ways its implications were more significant. Honduras is a longtime American client state, the recipient of billions of dollars in foreign aid and the home base of a strategically critical U.S. military force. Its President was allegedly actively involved in a large-scale trafficking operation, while the American government counted him as an ally. When I asked a U.S. official with extensive experience in the region how Hernández got away with it, he replied bitterly, “Because we let him. We looked the other way.”
For a powerful politician in Latin America, Juan Orlando Hernández is an unimposing figure. At fifty-three, he is a bespectacled man of medium height, medium weight, medium everything. He seems to have spent a lifetime following the most conventional route available. The fifteenth of seventeen children, he attended a military high school and studied law at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, where he was student-body president. After college, he worked as a lawyer and a notary public. His most visible adventure as a young man was a stint abroad in Albany, New York, studying public administration at the state university there.
When Hernández entered politics, in the nineties, he joined the conservative National Party, a rival to the centrist Liberal Party. In 1997, he was elected as a congressman from Lempira, his rural home province. Married with four children, he opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and favors compulsory Bible readings in public schools. In his first term as President, he led a purge of the corrupt Honduran police force, and agreed to coöperate with the U.S. on counter-narcotics operations. Was this really the same man who promised to help drug traffickers ship cocaine to the United States, in order to, as one witness put it, “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos”?
A few hours after Tony’s sentence was handed down, Hernández recorded an audio message for his loyalists. “What happened today is hard for the family, hard for me personally,” he said, in a brooding voice. “It makes me indignant, and it seems incredible that the false testimony of confessed murderers was credited in such a way.” He went on, “Sooner or later, it will be shown who is who in Honduras, what we have done and stopped doing, because between Heaven and earth nothing is hidden.”
Despite the suggestion of transparency, Hernández’s appearances since then have been mostly limited to tightly controlled events: addressing the United Nations General Assembly, inaugurating a new Honduran Embassy in Jerusalem. Government-funded media outlets avoid mentioning the allegations against him. Before going to Honduras, I corresponded for months with Hernández’s communications ministers, but once I arrived his officials refused to speak to me. Hondurans are mostly unconvinced by Hernández’s denials. In the capital, Tegucigalpa, the walls are marked with graffiti deriding the President: “Fuera J.O.H.” (“J.O.H., get out”) or simply “J.O.H. Narco.”
On Avenida Francisco Morazán, a commercial boulevard named for Honduras’s nineteenth-century national hero, the graffiti share space with billboards for Popeyes, McDonald’s, and K.F.C.—a small sign of the symbiosis with the United States that has defined Honduras for a century. The relationship has brought little apparent benefit. When I first visited Tegucigalpa, in the nineteen-seventies, pine forests covered the surrounding mountains, but they were cut back as the city sprawled. In their place, slums have grown in red-dirt swaths gouged from the hillsides. More than a million people live in the city, and many of them are poor. Gangs run life in most neighborhoods. Tegucigalpa is a city of security walls and razor wire, where the wealthy move around in armored cars. The U.S. Embassy is protected by reinforced walls, of a kind more commonly seen in the Middle East; a vast new embassy is under construction nearby.
Over the years, Hernández has proved adept at cultivating American politicians. Tim Rieser, an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy who has worked for decades on foreign policy, recalled that Hernández visited Washington and invited him to meet at the Willard InterContinental, a Beaux-Arts hotel near the White House. “He told me how much he loved human rights—he actually used the term ‘love,’ ” Rieser said. “J.O.H. is a polished politician. He calls you by your first name and tells people in Washington what they want to hear. With me, it was about human rights. With others, it’s about capturing drug traffickers.”
Under the Trump Administration, American officials hailed Hernández as a trusted partner on sensitive issues, including counterterrorism and anti-narcotics efforts. Perhaps most significant was Hernández’s willingness to help Trump curb immigration—especially from Honduras, from which a succession of highly publicized migrant “caravans” had set out toward the U.S.
According to estimates, there are at least five hundred thousand Hondurans in the United States, more than half of them undocumented; most have come in the past two decades. Always a poor country, Honduras has been increasingly beset by entrenched corruption, devastating hurricanes, and a persistent lack of jobs. As Mauricio Díaz Burdett, the director of a leading Honduran think tank, told me, “People don’t immigrate to the United States in search of the American Dream. They go there in order to survive.”
Nevertheless, Hernández signed a “safe third country” agreement, which allowed immigrants who arrived at the U.S.’s southern border, seeking asylum, to be sent instead to Honduras, to file claims there. Activists pointed out that Honduras, which has one of the hemisphere’s highest murder rates, was by no means a safe country, but Trump was pleased. Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, met with Hernández in Tegucigalpa and praised Honduras as a “valued and proven partner.”
The Administration’s most important assistance to Hernández came at the beginning of his second term, in 2017. The country’s constitution historically limited Presidents to one term, but a controversial Supreme Court ruling had lifted the stricture, allowing him to run again. The election was marred by claims of fraud, and by protests that resulted in at least twenty-two civilian deaths. Nevertheless, after a recount, the rubber-stamp Honduran electoral tribunal affirmed Hernández’s victory. A few days later, so did the Trump Administration. In 2019, as prosecutors pleaded their case against Tony Hernández, the U.S. Embassy tweeted out praise for its “strong relationship” with Honduras.
Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, described the transactional nature of American officials’ relationship with the government there: “The most important thing to our people is their access to the élites. It’s not important whether they’ve committed human-rights abuses, or even if they’re drug traffickers. J.O.H. is an evil scoundrel, and he outsmarted us because he figured out that by supporting us on drug interdiction and migrants he could blackmail us into going along with him.”
In January, 2021, a few days after Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice-President, she was briefed about the allegations against President Hernández. An official who was present said that Harris, a former prosecutor, had an immediate response: “Let’s go get him now.” (A White House official said that the Vice-President’s team has never heard her say anything like this.) The attendees informed Harris that the U.S. government had a long-standing unwritten policy against indicting sitting heads of state—though the official added that he personally would like to “cut him off at the knees.”
A senior Biden official told me that the Administration intended to work around Hernández, by engaging with other levels of the Honduran government, and would avoid sending officials to visit while he remained in office. Much of this awkward work will fall to Ricardo Zúniga, the newly appointed special envoy for the Northern Triangle—as Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are called. On several trips this year, Zúniga has refrained from stopping in Honduras. Instead, he has held Zoom meetings with leaders in civic society and in the private sector.
The Administration defined Central America as a priority early on, not least because of the way that Trump had weaponized concerns about immigration. A few days after Joe Biden’s Inauguration, a Presidential adviser on U.S.-Mexico border issues told me, “It’s not a case of if there will be a crisis but when.” Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been detained trying to cross the southern border. It is a chronic emergency with growing political ramifications. The senior Biden official told me, “The thing is, these countries have the ability to change the outcome of the next U.S. elections. If we can change things just a little bit for the better, we’ll have done a lot.”
Soon after taking office, Biden handed the Central America portfolio to Harris. The new Vice-President had little experience with international diplomacy and no special expertise in Latin America. Biden seemed unconcerned, pointing out that he had carried the same brief when he was Vice-President. But many policymakers and analysts in Washington told me that the situation in the Northern Triangle has deteriorated significantly since the Obama era. Eric Olson, a Central America expert at the Seattle International Foundation, noted that decades of U.S. intervention had in many ways made things worse. “Central America has not landed well, and it’s hard to argue that U.S. policy has been a success,” he told me. The United States has aided governments in this region, while ignoring corruption and abuses of power. “We didn’t regard these things as important as long as they stayed on our side in the Cold War,” Olson said. “A lot of foreign aid has been wasted, and now there is a lot of cynicism” about U.S. intentions. “The new Administration knows that it can’t do business as usual in Central America. Will they be successful? In the long run, possibly. In the short run, I fear not.”
Roberta Jacobson, who worked for decades as a U.S. diplomat specializing in Latin America, called the Northern Triangle “a poisoned chalice.” Harris and Zúniga need reliable partners, but the United States’ willingness to encourage despots has left the region largely in the hands of corrupt autocrats. As Jacobson said, “Who is there to trust?”
The senior Biden official acknowledged that even the old playbook of propping up ruthlessly effective autocrats didn’t seem feasible anymore. “If there was an efficient authoritarian like Lee Kuan Yew out there, maybe we’d look the other way,” he said. “But there isn’t.”
In his view, the most worrisome Central American leader is Nayib Bukele, the President of El Salvador. “He’s hitting the whole authoritarian punch list—demonizing your enemies, dominating the legislative assembly, and then controlling your population through the media,” he said. Bukele, a forty-year-old former night-club manager, is an abrasive populist who tweets without restraint. (He got along notably well with Trump, whom he once described in a press conference as “very nice and cool.”) Bukele took office in 2019, and has become enormously popular, through an effective crime-reduction program and a relatively efficient response to the covid-19 pandemic. But he has also relentlessly undermined democratic institutions. In 2020, he ordered armed troops into the Salvadoran Congress to coerce legislators into facilitating the purchase of new security equipment. This past May, he fired the country’s attorney general and replaced five senior Supreme Court justices with his own picks. After Vice-President Harris, among other critics, registered “deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy,” Bukele tweeted, “We’re cleaning our house . . . and that is none of your business.”
A few weeks later, Bukele ended his country’s coöperation with the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador—a group, backed by the Organization of American States, that had been investigating corruption in his government. In September, Bukele’s Supreme Court ruled that Presidents can serve two consecutive terms, allowing him to run for reëlection in 2024. The top U.S. diplomat in El Salvador lamented the move as a “decline in democracy.” Days later, Bukele changed his Twitter bio to “The Coolest Dictator in the World.”
In late June, Harris made her first foreign trip as Vice-President, with a stop in Mexico and a visit to Guatemala. With Hernández a pariah and Bukele openly defiant, Guatemala was the only Northern Triangle country where the Administration could hope to muster a semblance of official coöperation.
The trip did not go well. In a press conference with President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris announced a new U.S.-led task force, to oversee anticorruption efforts. “I can tell you from my work on this issue—follow the money,” she said. There was surely money to follow. In 2007, the U.N. had created an investigative commission in Guatemala, which helped secure the prosecution of two Presidents, a Vice-President, and dozens of other officials, before being dismantled by Giammattei’s predecessor.
Now the country’s primary anticorruption body was the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, which Harris pointedly mentioned, promising the support of the United States government. Giammattei, visibly uncomfortable, denied malfeasance by his administration, and vowed to assist the U.S.’s efforts. But, when I talked with Giammattei several days later, he complained about the intrusiveness of international judicial systems, and said that he objected to calling the new anticorruption unit a “task force.” He said, “It reminds me of the eighties”—a decade when the U.S. used the prospect of foreign aid to try to restrain Guatemala’s military during a bloody civil war.
Not long afterward, I met with Juan Francisco Sandoval, who at the time led the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity. When I described Giammattei’s concerns, he replied diplomatically: “The President is entitled to his opinions, and he’s a temperamental man.” Sandoval was grateful to Vice-President Harris for offering support, though. Laughing, he said, “At least now I know there’s a place to which I can escape.” A month later, Sandoval was removed from his post, and fled to the United States. In a press conference before leaving the country, he suggested that he had been pushed out because his office was looking into evidence that Giammattei had taken bribes from shadowy Russian investors. Soon after that, a warrant was issued for Sandoval’s arrest.
In Nicaragua, democratic norms are under even more direct assault. During the summer, the longtime Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice-President, Rosario Murillo, arrested scores of civic activists and opposition politicians, including eight candidates in this fall’s Presidential election. Even old comrades have become targets. Ortega issued an arrest warrant for his former Vice-President, the seventy-nine-year-old novelist Sergio Ramírez, accusing him of money laundering, inciting hatred, and “conspiracy to undermine the national integrity.” A senior White House adviser said he believed that Vladimir Putin, a close ally of Ortega, was instigating the crackdown, “just to undermine the U.S.”
The United States has had little incentive to change the situation in Nicaragua; historically, most migrants from there have headed south, to Costa Rica, rather than toward the U.S. In much of the region, the Biden Administration has tried to apply pressure with targeted sanctions. This past July, Congress authorized the State Department to sanction several officials close to Bukele, as well as others from Guatemala and Honduras. The Engel List, as the register of names became known, has since grown to include sixty-two people in the region. Those on the list had their U.S. visa rights revoked; they may also face frozen financial assets and, potentially, criminal prosecution.
These are more aggressive steps than the previous Administration took, but they are unlikely to produce radical change. Edgar Gutiérrez, a former Guatemalan foreign minister who is now a political strategist, told me, “One of the characteristics of mafia states, like the Central American ones, is that they are increasingly impervious to this sort of international pressure.” Migration and remittances prevent citizens from becoming desperate enough to demand change; complicit militaries protect corrupt leaders from real threats. “Their sources of enrichment and power—the corruption of the public budget, the flourishing trade in drug and people trafficking—are left intact,” Gutiérrez said.
In 2015, when Biden was Vice-President, he visited Capitol Hill to promote his solution for emigration, which encompassed the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America and the Alliance for Prosperity. “As far as I could tell, it was mostly a slogan, a repackaging of what we had been doing,” Rieser, the congressional aide, said. “I recall telling him we didn’t have credible partners in the national governments of those countries. They went ahead with it anyway.” The programs tripled U.S. expenditures on Central America, to more than $3.6 billion. But, despite some local successes, the plans didn’t halt the region’s decline. In 2019, Trump restricted the aid for seven months, as leverage for new migration strictures.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden renewed his efforts, with the optimistically named Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America. The plan called for spending four billion dollars to address conditions that encourage emigration—everything from corruption and violence to poverty and climate change.
This past May, Harris issued a “Call to Action,” urging international companies and organizations to pledge “significant commitments to help send a signal of hope to the people of the region and sustainably address the root causes of migration.” Chobani and Nespresso signed up. Microsoft promised to expand Internet access and to invest in technology for greater transparency in government spending. Mastercard committed to digitizing a million small businesses.
To succeed, though, the Administration will need support from civil society in the countries of the Northern Triangle. One afternoon in Tegucigalpa, I attended a meeting hosted by Fredy Nasser, an industrialist who is thought to be one of Central America’s richest men, at the local offices of his conglomerate, Grupo Terra. In an expensively tasteful boardroom, Nasser suggested that Grupo Terra could help the Administration’s plan for the region; perhaps unitec, a private university that his family had recently acquired in Tegucigalpa, could be transformed into an educational hub, with a think tank working on Central American problems. With the right sort of backing, he said, it could also provide Hondurans with improved access to education, through scholarships for rural students.
We were joined by Nasser’s brother-in-law, Miguel Mauricio Facussé, an amiable, sandy-haired man in his early fifties. Facussé was excited by the possibility that the Administration’s goals might jibe with those of his company, Dinant—a consortium with interests in palm oil, snack foods, and detergent. He pointed out that Dinant employed nearly eight thousand Hondurans directly, and provided livelihoods for twenty-two thousand more. With U.S. government support, he said, the company could expand its operations and improve the lives of many others.
There was a potential complication: for much of the past decade, Dinant was notorious among human-rights organizations. The company was founded by Facussé’s father, Miguel, who died in 2015 as one of the country’s wealthiest men. His business was built in part on a vast network of African-palm plantations, acquired with the help of a law, passed in 1992, that allowed small personal plots in peasant coöperatives to be sold to private owners. As Facussé bought up thousands of acres, activists accused him of malfeasance and began invading his land. In the ensuing conflict, dozens of people died, most of them activists and farmers killed in executions that human-rights groups have linked to Facussé’s private security force.
“It was like a civil war,” Miguel Mauricio Facussé told me, in the Grupo Terra offices. But, he argued, the violence had really been carried out by farmers and activists, not by the company’s security men. Seventeen Dinant guards had died, he said, and land invaders had occupied nearly a third of the family’s palm groves. He conceded that the conflict had eased after Dinant consented to disarm its guards. But he noted with pride that the company had agreed to a strict code of conduct, monitored by a law firm in Washington, D.C.
He told me that the land invasions continued, some of them apparently backed by organized crime. This was where the U.S. could help Dinant, he suggested—by encouraging the Honduran government to uphold the rule of law. He offered to show me the situation at his main palm-oil plantation and food-manufacturing facility, in Tocoa, in the north. We could go there by helicopter. It wasn’t a long ride, and we could stop at his family’s wildlife preserve nearby.
The Facussés’ preserve, known as Farallones, is twelve thousand acres of wild coastline and jungle-covered hills, home to jaguars, tapirs, and howler monkeys. It sits just down the coast from Trujillo, one of the ports used by the United Fruit Company to ship out bananas. It was a stay in Trujillo that inspired O. Henry to write “Cabbages and Kings,” the story in which he coined the term “banana republic.”
In the first half of the twentieth century, United Fruit was the largest employer in Central America, with such comprehensive control over the region that it evoked the East India Company’s dominion in Asia. In Guatemala, it abetted the C.I.A.-backed overthrow of President Jacobo Árbenz, after he expropriated the company’s land during an agrarian reform. In Honduras, it bought and sold leaders. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed in 1975 that the company had bribed the government of the Honduran dictator General Oswaldo López Arellano to lower export taxes on bananas. Soon afterward, the general was overthrown in a military coup.
In Farallones, there are a few visible reminders of that era, including the track bed of a railway operated by a United Fruit subsidiary called the Truxillo Railroad Company. When I lived on the nearby Honduran coast, in the seventies, it was said that, if you murdered someone and dumped his body on the tracks, it was the banana company’s responsibility to deal with the ensuing legalities—a burden of its kingmaker’s role.
The railroad tracks in Farallones have long since been pulled up, and the banana farms in the area have mostly been replaced by African palm. There have been other changes, too. For the past two decades, the airstrips of the local plantations have become a preferred venue for drug traffickers seeking to discreetly land shipments of cocaine on the way to the United States. Bananas have ceased to be Honduras’s main source of corruption; now it is cocaine.
In 2004, one such plane, likely bearing a ton of cocaine, was destroyed on the airstrip in Farallones. Facussé, the family patriarch, scoffed at suggestions that he was complicit, saying, “The narcos are building airports all over the place.” In a State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Ambassador reported that Facussé claimed that his guards had spotted the plane and shot at it, causing it to burst into flames. But the Ambassador also presented a different story, from a source in law enforcement: the plane had landed on the Farallones airstrip, while Facussé was present at the estate, and its cargo was unloaded onto a convoy guarded by heavily armed men. Only then was the plane burned and buried with a bulldozer, as if to hide the evidence.
In Tocoa, I was given a tour of the palm-oil installations and introduced to employees, who spoke of their gratitude to Dinant for providing jobs. One woman wept as she recalled being menaced by land invaders. A sturdy young man who ran the security forces spoke loyally about Dinant’s human-rights record, and condemned the “terrorists” who had invaded its plantations.
But, at a meeting with community leaders in a settlement just outside one of the plantations, people were more concerned with poverty. One man, who asked for anonymity, said that many people who didn’t work for Dinant earned no more than three or four dollars a day—not enough to sustain a family—and so it was tempting to flee. Eight of his relatives had already immigrated to the United States. “The dilemma is between staying here without anything or taking to the road and heading north, and possibly losing one’s life in the process,” he said.
It was difficult for small farmers to support themselves. When Facussé’s father bought up much of the surrounding area, the man said, some farmers felt pressured to sell their land. His own father had sold, he said: “When he saw it was either his land or his life or that of his family, he gave it up.”
In Farallones, Facussé showed me his family’s collection of imported red stags and axis deer, as well as a stable that housed a pair of fine white stallions. He explained that they were the offspring of a stud horse that Fidel Castro had given his father, when the two of them began working together to bring palm plantations to Cuba. (The program reportedly ended after U.S. officials asked Facussé to stop.)
Along a dirt track, Facussé pointed out the notorious airstrip. It was largely overgrown, and had heavy metal cables stretched across, to thwart drug traffickers. Despite the obstacles, a narco plane had landed there a couple of years earlier. The compound’s guards had cut the cables.
Edgar Gutiérrez, the former Guatemalan foreign minister, told me, “I think the Biden idea of working with civil society and not the governments is romantic but not very realistic.” Washington, he suggested, was paying the price for its intermittent attention to Central America. “It tends to deal with immediate crises in the zone, and when they become systemic ones it doesn’t know how to tackle them,” he said. “The four years of Trump compounded this, and left these countries in a state of even greater disrepair.” In the absence of strong governance, civil society might provide some modest achievements in development, he said, but “it cannot replace the functions of a nation-state.”
How does a nation-state fail? In the 1969 novel “Conversation in the Cathedral,” about a corrupt military dictatorship in Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa posed a version of that question: “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” When Hondurans ask the same thing, many say that the answer begins in the eighties, when the U.S. government made their country a front in the Cold War.
The impetus was Daniel Ortega’s socialist regime in Nicaragua, which President Ronald Reagan described as a “mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States.” The U.S. opened a sprawling military base, called Palmerola, in Honduras, and poured money into the country’s Army. The C.I.A. also launched a covert program to destabilize Ortega, by organizing a group of rebels known as the Contras. Secret camps were set up along the border, and the Contras launched forays into Nicaragua, while their leaders took meetings with C.I.A. handlers in Tegucigalpa. When Congress uncovered the program and ordered it shut down, the White House circumvented the ban with a gimcrack scheme: American operatives sold arms to Iran and funnelled the proceeds to the Contra fighters in the Central American jungle.
Within Honduras, the U.S.-backed military brutally quashed any attempts at an insurgency. When a handful of Marxists sneaked across the Nicaraguan border, they were swiftly hunted down and killed. In the cities, government assassins targeted campus radicals and trade-union supporters. Among their suspected victims was the father of Ricardo Zúniga, the U.S. special envoy for the region. A former major in the Honduran Army, Zúniga’s father had spoken to the U.S. Congress about the killings, and soon afterward was found tortured to death.
By viciously repressing the left, Honduras escaped the civil wars that devastated its neighbors, but it also never experienced the reconciliation that followed. Dan Restrepo, who served as a national-security adviser for Latin America during President Obama’s first term, told me, “The peace processes at least helped metabolize the ideological conflicts that had led to the civil wars, but in Honduras it was as if the page had never been turned.”
Throughout the eighties, drugs and international politics were inseparably entwined in Latin America. Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama, was a C.I.A. asset and was also involved in large-scale drug trafficking. When I interviewed him in prison, in 2015, he told me that the Americans had asked him to let Colombian drug runners launder cash in Panamanian banks. “They wanted to follow the money,” he said. According to a Senate investigation, led by John Kerry in the late eighties, the U.S. supplied assistance to the Contras using airplanes owned by Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros, an infamous Honduran drug lord.
Matta-Ballesteros, an early partner of Pablo Escobar, has become a legend in the narco underworld. His innovation was to link the Medellín cartel, in Colombia, with the Guadalajara cartel, in Mexico, completing a kind of cocaine superhighway to the United States. In Honduras, Matta-Ballesteros corrupted politicians, military officers, and police. He is also suspected of taking part in the 1985 torture and murder of an American D.E.A. agent. Following the killing, Matta-Ballesteros lived openly in Tegucigalpa, protected by lawmakers who pointed out that the nation’s constitution prohibited his extradition. After three years, the Honduran government finally sold him out; he was forced onto a plane and transported to the U.S. In Honduras, his arrest set off widespread rioting, as some fifteen hundred protesters marched on the U.S. Embassy, broke into its annex, and set it on fire. Five died in the unrest.
These days, Matta-Ballesteros is at a federal prison in the U.S., thirty-one years into a life sentence for drug trafficking and other charges. But the network that he built in Honduras has grown, subsuming the government and civil society. “The narco money is just too overwhelming,” one political observer said. “It makes doing the wrong thing easy, and this country has fallen into that. Nobody fears consequences for anything, because of the level of impunity.”
A decisive moment came in June, 2009, when President Manuel (Mel) Zelaya was pushed out of office in a coup. Zelaya, an ebullient politician with a signature white cowboy hat, had run as a conservative populist, and then surprised the country by allying himself with Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro. The nation’s conservative business élites and its armed forces, fearful of a leftist incursion, united to oust him. Zelaya was abducted early one Sunday morning and was hustled, still in his pajamas, onto a plane out of the country.
New elections were held a few months later, and the winner was Porfirio Lobo Sosa, from the conservative National Party. As the U.S. government determined its position on the coup, Restrepo visited officials in the new government. “It was like getting in a time machine,” he said. “They were all old-school Latin American Cold Warriors. They saw Chávez behind every tree and had an apparent deep distrust of the broader population.” Restrepo found Lobo “an underwhelming guy, very much an empty suit.” But, he said, “there was no really good way for us to reinstate Zelaya, so it became a matter of them running out the clock.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accepted the elections, and the coup seemed impossible to reverse.
In office, Lobo called for “national reconciliation,” and began building a team. Juan Orlando Hernández, who by then had served three terms as a legislator, became the president of the Honduran Congress. But the country deteriorated rapidly, with unrestrained gang violence and frequent assassinations of journalists, politicians, and land-rights activists. Much of the mayhem was evidently drug-related, though it was unclear who was behind it all.
Then, in 2015, two Honduran brothers, Devis and Javier Rivera Maradiaga, turned themselves in to U.S. authorities. The Rivera Maradiagas had started out as cattle rustlers before forming a drug-running organization known as Los Cachiros. Their business had brought them enormous wealth, including a property portfolio worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but they felt increasingly threatened. The U.S. had announced sanctions against them, and Honduran authorities had begun seizing their assets. Fearing for their lives, they struck a deal with the U.S. government and began to coöperate. Their testimony revealed the extraordinary extent to which drug trafficking had penetrated Honduran life.
Devis Rivera Maradiaga acknowledged responsibility for the murders of seventy-eight people, including Honduras’s anti-drug czar, its national-security adviser, and a noted journalist. The brothers’ testimony implicated some of the country’s most prominent people. Along with Tony Hernández, there was Yani Rosenthal, who had been in Mel Zelaya’s cabinet. Rosenthal pleaded guilty to money laundering; in 2017, he was sentenced to three years in an American prison. According to the brothers’ testimony, top officials and close relatives of three of Honduras’s most recent Presidents had been involved in drug trafficking. The accusations also implicated two of the Presidents themselves: not just Hernández but his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo.
Former President Lobo received me one afternoon in his apartment in Tegucigalpa. It occupied an entire floor of a recently constructed building, which towered above a neighborhood of walled private compounds that house some of Honduras’s wealthiest citizens. Juan Orlando Hernández lives nearby.
In the foyer, security men doused the soles of my shoes with antiseptic before buzzing me through. Every surface of Lobo’s apartment was shiny: white marble floors, high white walls, and a vaulted ceiling. Panoramic windows looked out toward the Basilica of Suyapa, which houses an eighteenth-century icon of Honduras’s virgin patron saint. The slums were far enough in the distance not to spoil the view.
As a servant led me to a sofa, a middle-aged woman greeted me and then vanished. It was the former First Lady Rosa Elena Bonilla, who, after her husband’s term in office, had been sentenced to fifty-eight years in prison for fraud and embezzling public funds. She served two and a half years and was released in 2020, after the Honduran Supreme Court threw out her conviction and ordered a new trial.
Lobo came into the living room, wearing a checkered shirt and jeans and giving off the relaxed air of a man in comfortable early retirement. He has been out of office for seven years, but he began our talk with a long recitation of his Presidential achievements. When I asked about the accusations against President Hernández, he smiled and told me, “It is said there are two things in this life you can’t hide—pregnancy and wealth.”
“So you do believe the rumors of his involvement in narco-trafficking?” I asked. Lobo nodded. The power of el narcotráfico was very real, he said. His own son Fabio had been caught collaborating with Los Cachiros—ensnared by a sting operation in which D.E.A. agents, posing as Mexican drug runners, persuaded him to help smuggle several tons of cocaine. Fabio pleaded guilty in a Southern District of New York court in 2016 and was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. Lobo gave me a beseeching look. “I have five sons, but Fabio is the only one born out of wedlock,” he said. He added, sadly, “I didn’t exercise enough control over him.”
President Lobo had himself been accused of profiting from the drug business. One of the Rivera Maradiaga brothers claimed that they had bribed him, during and after his election. In return, Lobo had allegedly offered political protection, and designated Fabio as a security liaison. Lobo denied this, insisting that his family was being persecuted by political enemies. “When my son Fabio was sentenced in 2017, the prosecutors came up with the story that I was the head of the narcos and my son was my lieutenant,” he said. Because Fabio had not grown visibly richer, Lobo said, it was “logical that people would have come to the conclusion that I was the one receiving the payoffs.” I looked around the apartment, taking in a grand piano, Lalique crystal, sculptures of lovebirds. But that was all a misapprehension, Lobo said.
Nevertheless, Lobo said that he had maintained good relations with the American Ambassador and had been lauded for his leadership by the U.S. government. Lobo noted that he had tried to reconcile the country after the coup that brought him to power. Among his achievements was a pact that he signed with Zelaya which allowed him to return from exile.
In recent months, the Americans’ tolerance seems to have ended. On July 1st, Lobo and his wife were included among the “corrupt and undemocratic actors” on the State Department’s Engel List. They would no longer be able to travel to the United States, and Lobo seemed more likely to face drug-trafficking charges in the Southern District of New York. Lobo threw up his hands; he said that it was what he had expected. “I’m on that list for presumption of guilt, for supposedly doing favors to Los Cachiros,” he said. “But Juan Orlando Hernández isn’t on it. Without him, it’s a churro”—a joke. He noted that the Hernándezes, unlike his family, had displayed an “exaggerated” accumulation of wealth. “There’s corruption in every government, but nothing like this one,” he said. The evidence was visible in Gracias, Hernández’s home town. “If you go to Gracias,” he said, “you’ll see there was a big leap in his income.”
Gracias lies nestled in pine-covered mountains, a six-hour drive west of Tegucigalpa; the road is winding and badly pitted, except for the last twenty miles, which are beautifully paved. This is where Tony and Juan Orlando Hernández and their fifteen brothers and sisters were raised, the children of a thrice-married former Army colonel who owned a coffee finca there.
Gracias does not look like a narco-trafficking town. It has a feeling of rustic prosperity, with cobblestone streets, a whitewashed sixteenth-century church, and a plaza with enormous shade trees and quiet cafés. Nearby is the Posada de Don Juan, a gracious Colonial-style hotel owned by the Hernández family. There are no flashy cars or mansions in sight, and the homes of two Hernández siblings that were pointed out to me looked doughtily middle-class.
A Honduran friend introduced me to a man in his fifties who grew up with Juan Orlando Hernández. When we sat down, he was visibly nervous. In a halting voice, he confirmed that he and Juan Orlando had gone to school together, but said that his parents had moved him to a different school and they had lost touch. When I asked what else he could tell me, he mentioned that J.O.H.’s father had been a colonel.
“What about Tony?” I asked. “Oh, yes, Tony!” the man exclaimed, as if he had forgotten all about him. After a pause, he said, “When it comes to the President, nobody around here will speak ill of him.” No one he knew had ever laid eyes on a drug shipment in Gracias, so the testimonies that had been given against the Hernández brothers in New York seemed like so many falsehoods.
Was he saying that the New York justice system—the judges and prosecutors and witnesses—was making things up? He thought for a moment and conceded, “Everything is known here in the pueblo.” There had been a time, he said, when narcotráfico owned the town and everyone looked the other way, so as not to end up dead. There had been a lot of rumors about Tony, who held bullfights and threw expensive parties with his friends—people whom U.S. authorities have identified as drug traffickers. (A spokesperson for President Hernández denied this.)
After we talked, I drove to an area outside of town where I’d been told that the Hernández brothers and some of their cronies had built homes. A new road led up a verdant hillside, where expansive villas looked out over the red-tiled roofs of Gracias and the mountains beyond. When I asked two local women how to get to the President’s house, they smiled knowingly and pointed to a dirt road, leading into a deep pine forest. I followed it until I found myself next to a high fence covered with green cloth. It extended all along the roadside, concealing everything inside from view.
Before leaving Gracias, I asked Hernández’s former schoolmate what he thought would happen to the President. Honduras has elections scheduled for this month, and, with Hernández ending his final term, American officials believe that he may be indicted by the Southern District of New York as soon as he leaves office. Many speculate that he will try to circumvent the constitution and run again, or will even cancel the elections. “He’s got power, and he knows that’s his only protection, so he’s not going to give it up,” the schoolmate said. “Whatever he does, he’s not going to let himself be taken by the gringos just like that.”
In June, the Organization of American States called a vote to condemn abuses perpetrated by Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua. A large majority of the members approved the resolution, but Hernández’s government abstained. Hondurans speculated that he was trying to ingratiate himself with Ortega, hoping for refuge in Nicaragua when his term is up. It is not an unthinkable scenario: two former Salvadoran Presidents who were accused of corruption now live in Nicaragua, under Ortega’s protection.
With his options narrowing, Hernández has seemed eager to prove his value to the United States. In late October, Honduras extradited the drug lord Fredy Donaldo Mármol Vallejo to the U.S. In response, the American prosecutor in charge of the case issued a press release expressing gratitude to the Honduran government. Hernández may also be looking for support from China. In recent years, several countries in the region, hoping to cultivate the Chinese, have abandoned their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. El Salvador has done so, and has been rewarded with the promise of major investments (a fact that Bukele enjoys using to taunt the Biden Administration). Several prominent Central Americans told me that they believed Hernández was considering a similar move. He has recently been endorsing a closer relationship with China, ostensibly to seek covid-19 vaccines.
If the elections proceed, Hondurans have little hope of a radical break from the past. One leading candidate is Xiomara Castro—the wife of Mel Zelaya, the ousted former President, who is helping her campaign. Her strongest ally is Salvador Nasralla, a sixty-eight-year-old television host who lost to Hernández in the contested election of 2017.
The nominees for the country’s two major parties have their own links to previous administrations. The National Party candidate is Nasry (Tito) Asfura, the mayor of Tegucigalpa. Asfura, a contractor and businessman, is a hyperkinetic man who bills himself as “Papi a la Orden”—Daddy at Your Service. As mayor, he has spent years tearing up and rebuilding roads, to relieve gridlock; Tegucigalpa is a mess of construction sites and bulldozers. He is under investigation for allegedly embezzling public funds, but so far no one has accused him of links to cocaine traffickers.
Asfura met me in Tegucigalpa one morning, a mustachioed man in jeans and work boots. He gave me a bear hug and greeted me as “papito lindo”—pretty little daddy. For more than an hour, he spoke in an exalted baritone, rarely pausing or even blinking, as he described his work to renovate the city. Whenever I brought up the allegations against the President and his brother, Asfura talked over me. He preferred to dismiss the “fake news” about Hondurans migrating. “It’s not true that everyone is fleeing,” he boomed. “Insecurity has decreased. Juan Orlando has done a good job.” His solution was to give the poor microcredits, so that they could open small businesses. “What the people need is work,” he said. “More security has to be given to investors. We have to open our doors to them.”
His opponent from the Liberal Party is Yani Rosenthal, the disgraced former member of President Zelaya’s cabinet. Rosenthal recently returned to Honduras, after completing his prison term in the U.S., and reëntered politics, winning his party’s primary by more than a hundred thousand votes. Biden officials told me that they were alarmed by Rosenthal’s rapid return to politics, and that they strongly opposed his candidacy.
Rosenthal’s victory in the primary displaced the leader of the Liberal Party, Luis Zelaya. A pensive man in his early fifties, Zelaya entered politics a few years ago, after more than a decade as the rector of unitec. Zelaya was appalled that his party had chosen a convicted drug profiteer as its candidate. But he was equally concerned that, if Asfura won, Juan Orlando Hernández would retain control of the country. “Asfura can claim he is his own man,” Zelaya said, “but it’ll really be J.O.H.”
Zelaya saw little reason for Hondurans not to flee. He said, “The U.S. Embassy here tries to dissuade potential migrants by telling them, ‘Don’t venture into the unknown.’ But, the thing is, there is nothing here for them.” Hondurans represent less than a third of the combined population of the Northern Triangle countries but nearly half of the people apprehended on the migration trail to the U.S. this year. According to a recent study, six out of ten Honduran students would prefer to leave the country after finishing school. At unitec, Zelaya once asked an assembly of students, “How many want to leave the country?” Almost all of them raised their hands.
Zelaya recalled this as a terrible moment of truth. “I was fortunate enough to study abroad, but I never considered not returning to the country,” he said. “That’s changed now. Whether they go in American Airlines to Miami, like the kids I spoke to, or in caravans, everybody wants to leave. The danger is that this leaves the country in the hands of people who can do whatever they want with it.” ♦